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Poop Plagued Shenandoah River

leah kirk

The Middle River, a tributary to the Shenandoah River looks like chocolate milk. This is the biggest river in Virginia’s Augusta County, it’s the also most polluted. The reason is cattle and poultry poop. The Middle River flows from farm to farm until joining up with the Shenandoah River about 100 miles downstream, and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay. A lot of the river banks along the way aren’t fenced, allowing cows and the waste they drop into the river.

Much of the Middle River consistently tests four times higher for E.coli than the state standard. The state health department does allow swimming or wading.  Interestingly, at the Middle River E.coli levels drop by a third because of fencing and other restoration efforts. But it picks again because many farms downstream aren’t fenced. By the time it joins the Shenandoah, the pollution is worse.


Conservationist Herschel Finch says he’s noticed a big change in the Shenandoah since he started fishing there in the late 70s.  “We see periods during the year when the algae pretty much take over entire sections of the river,” says Finch. “It has a tendency to reach a critical mass where it starts to rot and smell and it becomes almost unusable.”

Why so many algae? Manure is rich in nitrogen and phosphorus. Algae feed off these two nutrients, creating the thick, smelly algae blooms, which can be toxic. Keeping cattle out of streams is just one small part of a much larger problem. The Shenandoah Valley is Virginia’s breadbasket, home to hundreds of large scale cattle and poultry operations, which produce millions of pounds of manure every year. Farmers use this manure as fertilizer. But there’s so much of it, the runoff ends up in the river

For years, water conservation groups have wanted the state to comply with the federal Clean Water Act, which, among other things, requires permits and pollution controls for big animal feeding operations. State officials have refused the request because Virginia has no water quality standards for this kind of pollution.  Until scientific evidence of exactly what the problem is, we can’t declare an impairment. DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden says, ”If there’s an area with a lot of algae or just looks unappealing, we would encourage people to just avoid that area.”i.e. tough sh#t.

               “There’s plenty of evidence already,”  says attorney Jennifer Chavez, whose firm represents three citizen groups in a recent lawsuit against the EPA for failing to enforce the Clean Water Act. “The fact that this river is in a state of impairment is apparent to anyone who can see or smell.”

               A lack of streamside fencing on farms with cattle is a problem, with 80 percent of the 841 farms with livestock in the valley’s biggest agricultural county – Rockingham – failing to fence their animals out of streams. More than two-thirds of all chickens grown in Virginia, and 90 percent of the state’s turkeys, are raised in the valley’s Shenandoah, Augusta, Page, and Rockingham counties, along with more than a half million cows. These animals produce 1.15 billion gallons of liquid cow manure and 820 million pounds of poultry litter a year, which is far more than local crops can absorb as fertilizer.

Most of the manure is spread on local farm fields. But only 12.5 percent of the 539,955 acres of farmland in these four counties are covered by “nutrient management plans” designed to discourage farmers from over-applying manure.  Lotta crap, eh?